Whether it’s elaborate gambits designed to increase interest in veggies, or stern admonitions banning treats until the plate is clean, parents usually find themselves forced to deploy some serious strategy while trying to convince their children to eat more fruit and vegetables.

Many of us can attest to the success or failure of many of these methods. But what does science have to say about them?

According to new research published in Psychological Science by Stanford psychological scientists Sarah Gripshover and Ellen Markman, the key to an increased interest in vegetables among young children might be an overarching, conceptual framework, whereby kids are encouraged to develop an understanding of why broccoli, carrots, tomatoes and other notoriously shunned greens are absolutely crucial to their diet.

“Children have natural curiosity — they want to understand why and how things work,” the researchers explain. “Of course we need to simplify materials for young children, but oversimplification robs children of the opportunity to learn and advance their thinking.”

Oversimplifications — such as cases where the child is told to eat something simply because it is “good” for them — are not likely to incentivize the child, as they usually fail to engage his or her natural inclination to learn and develop. Instead, Gripshover and Markman suggest a more analytic method, where terms like metabolism, diet, and nutrient are taken apart and examined in new light.

In the study, Gripshover and Markman developed five storybooks designed to augment the knowledge preschoolers already had about nutrition and dietary variety. The books were then assigned to different classrooms to be read during snack time.

When compared to a control group where snack time had been conducted as usual, the groups of children that had been assigned a storybook exhibited a broader knowledge of digestive processes, and were much more likely to understand the way food consists of nutrients.

And the kicker: over the three-month study, the children who had been reading the storybooks more than doubled their voluntary intake of vegetables during snack time.

Naturally, further research is needed in order to determine the effectiveness of the strategy in settings outside snack time, as well as whether the results recorded in the classrooms actually stick. However, Gripshover and Markman believe that the conceptual framework is a promising new method, concluding that “in the future, our conceptually-based educational materials could be combined with behaviorally-focused nutrition interventions with the hope of boosting healthy eating more than either technique alone.”

Source: Gripshover, S. & Markman, E. Teaching Young Children a Theory of Nutrition: Conceptual Change and the Potential for Increased Vegetable Consumption. Psychological Science. 2013.